New York urges Japan visitors to return


NEW YORK — Watching the yellow cabs glide along the avenues of midtown Manhattan, a visitor could be forgiven for finding it hard to envision this densely populated island of steel and concrete in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks last year.

But as one approaches Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center once stood, the atmosphere becomes more solemn. Although much of the debris has been cleared away, dust still hangs in the air and the fence around St. Paul’s Chapel across the street is adorned with messages of condolence from around the world.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who spearheaded moves to get the city back on its feet and to bring tourists — and their wallets — back to the Big Apple, said he believes the losses the city suffered in the attack were more “the loss of human lives, and the impact on (people’s) emotions” than a question of economics.

Economically, New York is feeling the effect more from the recent lackluster performance of financial markets than the ailing tourism industry, Giuliani told a recent news conference.

“The downturn effect is arguably more from Wall Street than Sept. 11,” he said.

City officials agree, however, that New York is still hurting from the decline in tourism since the attack on the World Trade Center, even more than one year later.

And when it comes to international travelers, the Japanese — who follow the British, Canadians and Germans in terms of numbers — have been particularly slow to return.

“Visitors are returning and hotel occupancy is back to normal levels,” explained Cristyne L. Nicholas, president and chief executive of NYC & Co., the city’s official tourism marketing association.

“But hotel rates are down by a maximum 15 percent,” she added, indicating that rates have been reduced to raise occupancy.

The rebound that is apparent in domestic visitors to New York has been slower among their international counterparts, who accounted for some 6.8 million of the 38 million visitors to the city but were credited with 45 percent of total tourist spending, according to NYC & Co.

Meanwhile, surveys by the Japan Association of Travel Agents show that sales and reservations for package tours to the mainland United States and Canada have remained depressed since September last year, while destinations such as Oceania and China are on the rise, buoyed by new flight routes and increased availability as well as more package tour products.

Michael J. Stengel, general manager of the New York Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square and a member of NYC & Co.’s executive board, said during a recent visit to Tokyo that the number of Japanese travelers to New York was on the decline prior to the terror attacks because of a decrease in business travel stemming from the stagnant Japanese economy.

But he also acknowledged the rise of China as a popular destination for Japanese travelers and agreed that a greater effort is probably needed on the U.S. side to develop more exciting packages for Japanese tourists.

Nevertheless, many city officials and those in tourism-related businesses say they are confident that visitor numbers will pick up and are acting accordingly.

“We saw (more Japanese) tour groups (in New York) over the summer, and that was encouraging,” Stengel said.

The Marriott group of hotels has recently opened a Ritz-Carlton in Manhattan’s Battery Park and, according to Stengel, intends to reopen the hotel it had in the World Trade Center once plans for the redevelopment of the site are agreed upon.

Continental Airlines, the fifth-largest airline in the U.S., makes Newark-Liberty International Airport in New Jersey its hub. It recently opened a new terminal that was initially due to start operating in October last year.

Chairman and CEO Gordon Bethune said travel demand to and from New York will grow, and despite the concerns plaguing the U.S. airline industry, the carrier has added nearly 19 percent more flights to New York/Newark since reducing its schedule in October last year due to reduced passenger traffic in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

A rail link to Manhattan that opened in April will also work in Newark-Liberty’s favor as it makes travel times more predictable than from New York’s other airports, Kennedy and La Guardia, he maintained.